August 28, 2020

The five-member Public Disclosure Commission voted unanimously Thursday to refer two 2019 complaints against Google to the state attorney general’s office.  

The complaints (PDC case documents here and here) allege that Google violated state campaign finance laws that require commercial advertisers to maintain records known as “books of account” for political advertising. Those records are to be made available to members of the public upon request, so that they can see who is paying for political ads. 

The complaints against Google have been under review by PDC staff. Executive Director Peter Lavallee brought the cases to the Commission for review due to his assessment that “continued investigation of this matter will involve the expenditure of substantial resources by the PDC.” 

Lavallee said the review was an opportunity for the Commission to tell staff whether that expenditure was an appropriate use of agency resources. 

Commissioners, in deciding to refer the matter, cited instead a desire to ensure consistency with other recent disclosure cases involving large digital political advertising platforms. 

In June, the PDC’s executive director – with the concurrence of its chair – referred a case against Twitter to the state attorney general for appropriate action. 

And in February, the Commission voted unanimously to refer two complaints against Facebook to the attorney general. (Links to PDC case documents in those cases are here and here.) 

Commissioners on Thursday also cited the attorney general’s authority to seek higher penalties, if warranted, against Google than the commission can impose. 

Commission Vice Chair Fred Jarrett, in making the motion to refer the case to the attorney general, said there are two principles at stake. 

“There are two things we are interested in: full compliance with our disclosure laws, and the ability of campaigns in this state to take advantage of social media,” he said. “It’s important, especially in the COVID-19 era, for campaigns to be able to use these tools in order to have robust civic conversations during a campaign.” 

Google says it has paused acceptance of political ads in Washington state because its platforms were not designed to collect all the information required by Washington law. 

Beth George, who represented the company before commissioners Thursday, said Google implemented policies to block placement of political ads from Washington state, but that some ads were posted in violation of those policies. George added that Google continues to work on solutions that would allow it to begin once again accepting ads in compliance with PDC rules.